The North Carolina Tar Heels enter the ACC schedule ranked No. 19 in the country with a record of 10-3. While that record seems woefully familiar, this UNC squad is in much better shape heading into conference play than the 10-3 'Heels of 2012-13.
The 2013-14 squad already has three wins over AP Top 25 opponents, playing their best ball of the season against those teams. It was just the opposite last season as they were pounded by Indiana and Texas, only picking up one Top 25 win with a victory over UNLV.
The sophomores have improved tremendously and the freshmen seem to be mentally prepared for the gauntlet that is the Atlantic Coast Conference. But in order to win the ACC, the Tar Heels will have to be at the top of their games every night for 40 minutes.
The following five focal points will be key if Carolina plans to hang another banner in the rafters of the Dean Dome.
Clearly, one of the most important aspects of the game for any team is rebounding. Even more attention is placed on the boards for North Carolina this season, with the usual focus on transition and the unusual lack of weapons on the perimeter.
With Leslie McDonald's return and Marcus Paige's breakout season, they have weapons on the outside—just not as many as they are accustomed to. Roy Williams-led teams typically have three or four quality shooters.
That is not the case this season after Reggie Bullock's early entry into the NBA and P.J. Hairston's ineligibility.
The lack of outside threats means other guys occasionally have to take shots they aren't comfortable with when the inside game is being shut down. This is where offensive rebounding becomes crucial. A miss essentially becomes a pass to the bigs that can be tipped back in or put back up from the floor.
Or J.P. Tokoto can come flying in out of nowhere for a putback jam.
So far, the Tar Heels have been strong on the offensive boards, hauling in 13.8 per game, which ranks second in the ACC. Overall numbers also say they have done well on the defensive end with 27.4 per game.
Unfortunately, they aren't cleaning up on the boards as much as they should be on that end of the floor. Opponents are pulling in 29 percent of their offensive rebounding opportunities. There, Carolina ranks 153rd in the country.
Consistent effort on the boards just isn't there. The Tar Heels fail to box out too often and sometimes their feet appear to be nailed to the floor.
If the bigs are getting out in transition, it's OK for them not to fight for a rebound. But being anywhere near a rebound and not giving effort is completely unacceptable. That's what we call no man's land.
It's tough to imagine how nasty this team would be on the boards if it gave 100 percent effort every second of every game. Hopefully, these guys can clean up their acts starting this Sunday. Maybe then we'll get a taste of their potential during conference action.
Last season, the biggest free-throw-related issue for North Carolina was just getting to the line. The Tar Heels only attempted a paltry 17.9 free throws per contest. That's highly unusual for a Roy Williams team that is schemed for working inside-out.
But last season was far from typical. Beyond James Michael McAdoo and his bench counterpart Brice Johnson, there was absolutely no inside game. There was very little penetration from the guards, either. It was all about the jump shot.
This season, the team has done a complete 180.
The Tar Heels' game is all inside now. McAdoo, Johnson and even freshman Kennedy Meeks have been able to score down low while the perimeter players have been attacking the basket as often as they put up jumpers.
Only 17 percent of all the Tar Heels' field-goal attempts have been threes this season compared to 30.7 percent in 2012-13.
While everyone would rather see some better outside shooting from UNC, at least it is getting to the charity stripe these days. That stops the clock, gives the uptempo team a rest, gets opponents in foul trouble and it's an easy shot to boot.
At least it should be.
The Tar Heels are averaging a whopping 31.7 free-throw attempts per game. That's good enough for fifth in the nation. Unfortunately, they only make 19.8 per contest on 62.4 percent shooting.
Abysmal is the only word for that.
Roy Williams' 2009-10 team was his previous worst at 65.3 percent. Before that season, only his first Carolina team (2003-04) shot less than 70 percent from the line—a percentage that hasn't been seen since his last title in 2009.
I don't think the free throws are a Williams problem. It's a modern basketball problem. You won't see Paige's free throws on any highlight reel even though he's buried 30 in a row. That's what kids seem to care about these days.
By the way, how many of you even knew Paige has made 30 free throws in a row? Exactly.
One way or another the Tar Heels have to figure this out. Some of my favorite suggestions have been hiring Speedo Guy for practices, putting students and diehard Tar Heel fans behind the goal to distract the shooters and making a high-stakes contest out the practice free throws to ramp up the pressure.
Or maybe Ol' Roy just needs to get into them like he did after the Texas game in which his Tar Heels shot 24 of 47 from the line in a three-point loss.
"I'm tired of talking about free throws," Williams said in the postgame presser, per GoHeelsTV. "You have to be tough enough to step up and make the daggum thing or go play soccer or something. Tell Anson (Dorrance) I'm not trying to rag on his sport but God almighty..."
If that's what he said to the media, one can only imagine the earful his players received behind closed doors. Since that game, the Tar Heels are 68 of 95 from the free-throw line. That's 71.6 percent, and that's where a team this talented should be.
Let's hope this lasts.
Turnovers have also been an issue with this UNC squad. That's to be expected from a team with this much youth and a freshman running the point. Given the situation the Tar Heels were placed in with the mistakes of McDonald and Hairston, along with the early departure of Bullock, 12.8 turnovers per game isn't overly worrisome.
That doesn't mean they don't need to—or can't—get better.
Carolina's top distributors are also the team's worst offenders when it comes to turnovers. Marcus Paige, Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto average four, three and 2.7 assists per game, respectively. But they're also combining for 6.2 turnovers per game.
Tokoto's 1.25:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is the worst of the three.
It's not that his vision is bad or his accuracy is poor; he's just too aggressive most of the time. He's a straight-up gunslinger. Don't mistake that for a poor basketball IQ.
There is a lot of genius in what Tokoto does with the ball. The youngster just needs to learn that he can't fit the ball in every window and that cross-court passes are seldom a good idea.
The Tar Heels as a whole need to focus more on rotating the ball to get the defense out of position, rather than making that one perfect pass. But when the perfect pass does come from the likes of Britt, Paige or Tokoto, their teammates need to be ready to haul it in.
Quite a few of their turnovers this season can be blamed on teammates that weren't looking for the ball. Until a shot goes up, the guys without the ball should have their heads up and be prepared to catch the rock.
Being more selective on passes, rotating the ball and simply paying attention are three easy ways these Tar Heels can cut back on turnovers during ACC play.
Defense has been the strongest area for these Tar Heels, and that must continue as they head into the ACC half of the schedule.
The Roy Williams-led Tar Heels cannot be judged for their opponent's 68.5 points per game. Williams wants as many possessions as possible, which means the other guys will have plenty of opportunities to score.
Every other defensive statistic is fair game, though. In those columns, Carolina does not disappoint.
UNC forces its opponents into 15.4 turnovers per game (31st), which includes 8.2 steals (21st). It's also holding the other teams to 37.9 percent shooting overall (11th) and 31.1 percent from three (78th). That's stellar.
What's most surprising is the amount of blocks the Tar Heels have this season. Through 36 games last year, they finished with 117 blocks. They have 76 through 13 games this year for an average of 5.8 per (25th).
It wouldn't be so surprising if their leading blocker from last season, Desmond Hubert, was playing more than 5.8 minutes per game and had more than four blocks. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were the only two new additions to the post rotation—and Hicks plays mostly on the wing.
What's changed is McAdoo has become a much more aggressive defender. He's actually using his athletic ability to swat shots rather than trying to set up a charge. He already has a career-high 15 blocks this season.
Johnson is leading the way with 19, Tokoto has soared for 10, Meeks has 11 and even Hicks has nine in his limited action. It's amazing what this team has accomplished in that category when you compare the statistics to last season.
As you can see, the Tar Heels are very good defensively. But they can get better. And the better they get, the more points they will score with their much-improved transition game.
Intensity will be the key moving forward.
There is no greater deficiency than a lack of intensity.
Say what you will about schemes, skill, athleticism or size. None of that means squat if a team doesn't play with intensity and effort. For Carolina, that starts on the defensive end of the floor.
You can pretty much tell how a UNC game is going to go within the first five minutes. If it's in its defensive stances and hustling all over the floor, the opposing team will be in for a very long night. Carolina is too talented defensively for just about any team in the country.
That has been proven in its biggest victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
But that's only when the Tar Heels play at 100 percent, which is something Roy Williams can't seem to get out of his guys each and every game. They often get caught playing down to their opponents.
We can talk free throws, but a lack of hustle was the biggest culprit in all three losses.
Now that the Tar Heels are heading into ACC action, how will Williams keep these guys from playing down to every team not named Duke or Syracuse?
There is no clear-cut solution to this problem and Bobby Knight methods no longer fly.
Williams will just have to find what these guys feed off of. Obviously, this method can't be used for 40 minutes, but the full-court press seems to spark the fire for these kids. That gets them active and they stay that way when they reach the other half of the floor.
Just throwing in the press every few minutes may be enough to keep the intensity and the defense active. They've also seen some success with half-court traps, so that can be tossed in there for added fuel.
They also appear to be motivated by Johnson when he is fired up on either end of the floor. He hasn't played with quite the passion since hitting a shooting slump the last few games, but he needs to bring that back. It gets the fans and the bench hyped up and that feeds the other players on the floor.
The power of the mind is often the most overlooked aspect of any sport. Even the tiniest things such as one player pumping his fist and screaming can have an impact on an entire arena.
If the Tar Heels can fine-tune these five areas of the game, they will wreak havoc on ACC opponents. They may even have a shot at unseating preseason favorites Duke and Syracuse as conference champion.